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Ashes to Ashes
by Stuart Watson
Verna set Larry’s urn on the mantel, beneath a Winslow Homer print. She stood back, walked forward, moved it six inches to the right, stepped back, looked again.
“Bastard,” she said and went to the kitchen. Waiting for the water to boil, she thought back to the day she set him up to fail them both.
She was the church-goer. Larry was the reluctant sidekick, attending because he loved her. He daydreamed through the service, eager for an exit. His eye roamed the room, always pausing on Helen, the choir leader. The pastor’s wife. Quite striking. Stunning, actually.
Verna persisted in her recruitment efforts. She believed in the power of the spirit to move mountains, to bring Larry into the fold.
Larry wasn’t having it.
One day, she heard him in the shower. Singing. Like an angel.
The next Sunday, she mentioned to Pastor Jeff that Larry might be a good candidate for the choir.
Verna came home that night and told Larry. “You’ve got a great voice. You should think about it.”
“You just don’t quit, do you? I have no desire to sing for god, to god, with god, about god. There is no god.”
Not long after, she was preparing for church when Larry slipped on a shirt and tie. She paused, shot him a quizzical look. He looked back.
“Choir,” he said, as if it should have been obvious.
“Of course,” she said. “Choir.”
She would never forget introducing him to Helen. Larry’s future lover, as it turned out. Verna blamed herself. How could she have known?
Jeff pulled her aside after the next service. “Larry is perfect,” he said. “Just what Helen needed.”
Helen? Or the choir? She filed it under faux pas. Pretty soon, Larry was going to choir practice every night. Verna had no idea they practiced so much.
“It’s the only way to get better,” he said. “You want me to get better, don’t you?”
She smiled. At the service, she watched Larry and Helen. They often shared a hymnal. Verna glanced at Pastor Jeff, but he was watching Larry and Helen, too. When his gaze wasn’t drifting toward Verna. Tall, with flowing bronze hair, always curling upward at the slight hint of cleavage she allowed herself at church.
One night, after Larry left for practice, Verna whipped up a batch of chocolate chip cookies and took them to the church, to reward the choir for its hard work. But the sanctuary was empty. Dark. The piano hid beneath its purple velour cover, the big embroidered gold cross facing the pews. She called Pastor Jeff, asked him if there was choir practice that night, and when he said “yes,” she asked “where,” and when he said “church,” she thanked him and hung up.
As Verna pulled from the parking lot, she noticed two people step into a dimly lit crosswalk. She knew Larry’s walk.
After Larry’s untimely death and Helen’s injuries, her amnesia, Jeff and Helen invited Verna to dinner. “Bring wine,” they said.
Nobody knew what to say. They ate dark brown meat and soft carrots. They told Verna how sorry they were. She nodded, excused herself earlier than anyone but a new widow would.
A month later, waiting for the water to boil, she heard a knock at the door. It was Pastor Jeff. Tears poured down his face. He blubbered and babbled and daubed and scrabbled for tissue.
“She’s dead,” he wailed, as best he could. “Hit by a car. Again.”
“Oh my god,” Verna said.
Her hands reached up toward Jeff’s face, contorted in grief, or what he imagined grief to look like. Her hands hovered between them, like hummingbirds.
“That’s just … tragic,” she said.
“And ironic,” he said, sobbing without tears.
“Oh, Jeff,” she said. “Come in. Let me get you –”
“I thought you might need–” he extended a bag of croissants then turned and left, too distraught to act distraught.
She waited a week, then went to visit him. Console him. He invited her in, offered her instant coffee. “Not much of a cook,” he said. She followed him past the mantel.
“Say ‘hi’ to Helen,” he said, touching the urn in passing. Verna recognized the model. Same as she got for Larry.
He set their coffees on the table between them.
“You and I share something,” Jeff said.
“Loss. Nobody knows the weight of loss until it shows up. In an urn.”
“Helen didn’t want a burial?”
“Said it was a waste of good ground.”
Verna stared, thinking of all those Sundays, her in the pew, staring at the choir. Larry and Helen, leaning close, sharing the hymnal. While Jeff focused on Verna, lust in his own heart.
Jeff knew all about affairs. Affairs of the body. Affairs of the heart. He was not above a wayward glance. As he spoke from the pulpit, his eyes on Verna, he felt as if he had cheated on Helen, numerous times. Not that he had. Not that he had strayed to that sweet place, desire a hunger fed. Man does not live by bread alone. He liked bread. He craved Verna.
And yet, until Verna’s visit, he had lived his own life, kept appropriate distance, played by the rules. Rules are rules. Ashes to ashes. All that.
Sipping his coffee, Jeff thought of how memories of other people’s shared infidelities and confidences were like swimming with boulders. Until the funeral home poured them into an urn.
The afternoon with Verna passed easily. He spoke to her about the two new choir vacancies, said she should apply.
“You have such a beautiful … voice,” he said.
That was direct, Verna thought. But it’s not as if he’s married. It wouldn’t be cheating. And after Larry’s passing, and now Helen’s, the choir could use another voice.
Just days later, he came for dinner. Later, they shared sherry, greeted the dawn, split a croissant. Events accelerated. In no time, Jeff was listing his house for sale and moving boxes into Verna’s flat.
As he unpacked his last box, he lifted out Helen’s urn. Verna saw him holding it, reached down and took it. She smiled wanly at him, turned and set the urn on the mantel about a foot away from Larry’s.
While Jeff was at church the next afternoon, Verna glanced up from her knitting at the two urns. She caught her breath. The urns were no longer as she left them. No longer a foot apart. They were closer. Much closer. Touching, if truth be told.
Stuart Watson wrote for newspapers in Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland. His writing has previously appeared in Two Hawks Quarterly, Bending Genres (Best Microfictions Nominee), Flash Boulevard, Montana Mouthful, Five South, Reckon Review, and many others. He lives in Oregon with his wife and their amazing dog.